Food economy and Garden City legacy: Letchworth Garden City in our present day Part 2

Author: Amelie Andre
October 2020
University of Hertfordshire & the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation 



In 2019, a Think Piece published here introduced a research project conducted in a partnership between the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation and the University of Hertfordshire for a doctoral scholarship aimed at exploring the food economy in Letchworth. The text was the first of four parts and linked today’s food economy questions with the late nineteenth century, the context during which Howard developed his vision for the Garden City model (Andre, 2019). Following up on this aforementioned introduction, my second Think Piece explores the spatial organisation of a Garden City as described by Howard and connects it with an overview of today’s local food offer in Letchworth Garden City. The text opens with the food features detailed in the early twentieth-century Garden City model and then compares them to today’s foodscape in Letchworth. As one of the study’s expectations was to map out local food places, an examination of the mapping project supported by observations during fieldwork concludes by highlighting the strength of the Garden City model for urban food solutions.

A local food supply vision: the agricultural and town estates 

From production, transformation, retail consumption, and waste management, Howard developed an integrated local food supply chain (Howard, 1898). Agriculture was central in the popular land reform debate of the ninetieth century (Fishman, 1977; Szibbo, 2016), with a dual view to regain prosperous English agriculture by levelling up population in deserted countryside from overcrowded cities (Clark, 2003; Howard, 1898; Ward, 1992). In this context, food was a crucial economic resource for the Garden City thanks to a strategic town layout that includes two complementary estates functioning together: a 5000-acre agricultural land (equivalent to roughly 2000 hectares) surrounding the town estate of 1000 acres (around 400 hectares). 

The agricultural estate has a double role of preventing the built extension of the town (Purdom, 1913, p.108) while being ‘’mainly for agriculture occupation’’ (p.117). It provides food and employment opportunities for the local community, with various types of husbandries, including large homesteads, smallholdings, fruit farms, cow pastures, large fields, ensuring a wide range of staple food (Adams, 1905, p.92; Harris, 1908, p.40; Howard, 1898, p.18). This green belt is also a place for education and rural industries (Adams 1905, p.44), as well as an overarching benefit for residents’ health and wellbeing (Culpin, 1913, p.11; Freestone, 2002, p.68; Purdom, 1913, p.118). 

Hence, food production in the Garden City serves socially and economically and is intended as affordable investment opportunities for entrepreneurial projects. Direct access to a local market and prospect of a dwelling next to the land were promising elements to attract tenants and create a potent agricultural capacity (Adams, 1905, p.51, p.40; Howard, 1898, p.18; Purdom, 1913, pp.116-117). However, despite fruit farms and smallholdings up for grabs in Letchworth, the agricultural sector met its limits, notably due to the prohibitive price for tenants to build adjacent housings (O’Sullivan, 2016, p.171). Besides, an attempt for a local and comprehensive policy for agriculture in Letchworth in the mid-1910s was dismissed by the steering committee of the Garden City Association (GCA) and shows a divergent internal agenda (Beevers, 1988, p.127). 

In the town estate, food production is made possible with additional allotments on the edges (p.26) and individual private and common gardens (Howard, 1898, p.14). Food growing for one’s own consumption or wage complement enables for livelihood betterment (p. 17), albeit not everyone is an enthusiastic gardener (Purdom, 1913, p.105). 

The town estate is an economic recipient of local production, including food (Aalen, 1992; Clark, 2003, p.91). What Howard called the “local option” (Howard, 1898, p. 73) is the advantage given to the local economic market. This ensures opportunities for professional producers to sell their goods for a fair price (p.74), being yet a better deal for local customers thanks to a shortened chain of intermediaries. Local trade network system (p.68) is the opportunity for individuals to operate business (p.73), a form of a “local shopping policy”, yet open to an external competitive market (p.33, p.75). The co-operative model was the advocated form of retail outlets to support local traders and small businesses. To secure economic activities, most shops’ leases were for 99 years from the local administration to ensure a certain control over speculation. These long leases should ensure stable activities and fair conditions if faced with sudden economic changes (Beevers, 1988, p.95; Fishman, 1977, p.66; Howard, 1898, p.75).

The retail offer, including food outlets, was supposed to be held in the town centre to prevent dispersion. The Crystal Palace, also called Grand Arcade (Howard, 1898, p.75), is a covered space where retailer, farmers and co-operatives can trade their goods. Howard described it as a variant of a marketplace (p.73), when today, it is also compared to a precursor of today’s shopping malls (Parham, 2020). Mostly, this is an embodiment of the association of the local food economy with the community, expected as a place-making process. 

We have seen that in Howard’s vision, the food produced on the agricultural estate works with the town estate for a viable local food economy since ‘’every farmer now has a market close to his doors. There are 30,000 townspeople to be fed.’’ (Howards, 1898, p.24). However, Howard nuanced this statement with: “Those persons, of course, are perfectly free to get their food stuffs form any part of the world, and in the case of many products will doubtless continue to be supplied from abroad.” The food system in Howard’s vision was a form of today’s short food-supply network within the broader context of the wider food supply trade. Self-sufficiency wasn’t a prerogative for the Garden City model and Howard gave a realistic representation of a Garden City’s foodshed, which is “the geographical area from which a population derives its food supply”  (Peters et al. 2009, p.2, in Parham, 2018, p.111).

Letchworth Garden City’s foodscape 

Aware that the foodshed of a town is greater than the local food production and consumption places, we now move onto the current food offer in Letchworth, its foodscape, which includes ‘the social and spatial organisation of networks and food supply systems’ (Wiskerke & Verhoeven, 2018).  The foodscape is an upshot of the multi-level actions translated on-site that crystallises land uses in tune with social and economic drivers. The resulting foodscape is ultimately influential on people’s interactions with their food environment while a place-making process (Mikkelsen, 2011b, 2011a; Moragues-Faus & Morgan, 2015). Besides, the importance of location is emphasised when food is seen as a cultural element that distinguishes a place from another one (Ilbery & Kneafsey, 2000; Parham, 2018). 

To understand Letchworth’s foodscape, the work strategically started with a mapping project establishing a most exhaustive possible list of the local food-related venues in Letchworth and close vicinity, including food production spaces, retail, consumption, and waste management. I have used the data made available by my research programme (HKEP) via the University of Hertfordshire (UH) and the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation (LGCHF), particularly with Geographic Information System (GIS) files. As not every data wasn’t directly available, I have created additional primary data sets during fieldwork, using an online phone book to establish a list of every food distribution place in Letchworth while verifying these during field trips on my bike. 

The first set of data relates to the rural estate; whose land is today owned by the LGCHF. I have collected the layers of the different land use in the greenbelt. The map of productive land in Letchworth shows the prevalence of the arable lands and the place for food production today. However, crops cultivated aren’t targeted for the local consumption. Although smallholdings have today disappeared, an example of local food production is the use of apples from both the Croft Lane Orchard (currently managed by the LGCHF), pressed and processed by a local processor in Baldock. During events in town, such as the “Food and Drink Festival” or the monthly Farmers’ Market in the town centre, the mapping project enabled to identify some farms around Letchworth Garden City that sell their produces in Letchworth, such as cheese or vegetables. 

In the town estate, the food retail places recorded on maps show a high density of food consumption venues in Letchworth town centre: restaurants, pubs, cafés, and takeaways. A few high-end venues are scattered on the outskirts, taking advantage of the greenbelt and its environment. A fair number of supermarkets are available in the town centre, as well as on the east side of the town, in the industrial area. It is also supposedly easy to reach by car supermarkets in Letchworth, Hitchin, and Stevenage. However, some areas in town have limited offers of affordable fresh food within walkable distances, and this is the matter of the following section, exploring some urban layout feature in Letchworth. 

Richness of the urban layout in Letchworth for food network

The examination of three neighbourhoods helped understand the residents’ environment and their food access possibilities: Common View, Rushby Mead, and Jackmans Estate. All three areas have different remarkable urban layouts with a variety of green spaces: semi-commons, private gardens, nature strips, allotment spaces, public parks. Rushby Mead is in the town centre and within a walkable distance of a variety of food supply outlets. This area is one of the first housing clusters of the town planned by Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker, who have designed a layout with collective spaces. A few years ago, a consultation with the tenants led to redefine two existing shared plots of land for the nearby residents. The first became a common garden for leisure that faces the street and thus protects the private gardens of the residents. The second plot turned out to be an allotment hidden between the houses, with an orchard and a growing plot for the local school. The Jackmans and Common View areas may lack food outlets within walkable distance. However, large allotments and the greenbelt fields are close to both Common View and the Jackmans Estate. This proximity and the allotments suggest that somehow potential food growing spaces exist for households or why not small-scale professionals for the largest plots*, provided commercial activities were allowed. It is also worth noting that the Jackmans Estate shows a characteristic post-war design, with housing clusters organised following the “Radburn layout”, where large green common spaces provide a green continuity and potential variation of the land use on a small scale. 

These observations help us reflect on Howard’s writings on smallholdings (1898, p.17), co-operatives (p.17, p.78), common gardens (p.15), and the overall green typology heritage of the Garden City model for innovative green, productive, and resilient urban planning (Couchman, 2005; Fishman, 2002; Livesey, 2011, 2016; Parsons & Schuyler, 2002). Agrarian belt, allotments, and community gardens connect the Garden City model with contemporary urban food issues already under the lenses of many researchers and practitioners, such as urban agriculture and urban food movements (Duany & Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, 2011; Franck, 2005; Lim, 2014; Parham, 2015a, 2015b). These are an umbrella term that cover practices diverse in size, locations, purposes, and techniques that show engagements that are broader than observable at first sight: productive balconies, hidden allotments in dense cities, seeded rooftops, or peripheral farmlands (Cockrall-King, 2012; La Rosa, Barbarossa, Privitera, & Martinico, 2014; Turner, Henryks, & Pearson, 2011).

The rich variety of green typologies for food growing opportunity in Letchworth shines a light on the Garden City as a relevant model for urban food questions embedded in planning and foodscape (Cabannes & Ross, 2018; Kaufman & Pothukuchi, 2000; Keeffe, Hall, & Jenkins, 2016; Parham, 1990, 1992, 2016a; Pothukuchi & Kaufman, 2000; Steel, 2008; Viljoen & Wiskerke, 2012). Of course, today the amount of locally produced food that is consumed in town is not the most prevalent part. However, the land dedicated to grow food is significant and connects up with current concepts for potent urban food solution, such as the “food retro-fitting” (Parham, 2016b; Parham & McCabe, 2016) or the “Continuous Productive Urban Landscape” (Viljoen, Bohn, & Howe, 2012). 

I hope you have enjoyed this text. I have oriented food in Letchworth towards a spatial and geographical approach. As the research also takes into account the social and political divers for the food economy, the next Think Piece to be published will focus on the legacy of the Garden City model principles as potential incentives for local food initiatives in Letchworth. The political dimension will be the subject of the last Piece.

See you next time. 

* I have written this text in a pre-COVID time. Observation about land availability and food growing spaces may have changed over the pandemic.  


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